Ranking the 25 Best American Golfers of All Time

Mike DudurichContributor IOctober 9, 2012

Ranking the 25 Best American Golfers of All Time

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    Picking the 25 best golfers from the United States might seem like a pretty easy task.

    But when you start poring through the names—and what a list of names to pick from—the task becomes difficult only because there are so many good players to choose from.

    There are plenty of no-brainers and plenty of maybes, and maybe even a stretch or two.

    And the other thing about a list like this...it's bound to spark conversations.

    Check my list of the 25 best.

Lanny Wadkins Took on Golf Head-on at Every Step

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    Another of that “bulldog” variety player, Lanny Wadkins didn’t back down from any golf challenge. He only won one major title, the 1977 PGA Championship, beating Gene Littler in a three-hole playoff at Pebble Beach Golf Links. He also recorded four runner-up finishes in majors.

    He might be best known for his prowess in the Ryder Cup. He played in the prestigious biennial event eight times between 1977 and 1993. He earned 21.5 points in the Ryder Cup, the sixth-best total in history.

    Wadkins had 31 wins worldwide, 21 on the PGA Tour and one on the Champions Tour. He was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.

Gene Littler Came Back from a Serious Slump

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    Gene Littler’s resume reads very nicely: 47 professional wins, 29 on the PGA Tour and eight on the Champions Tour. But Littler’s story is about a comeback as well.

    In 1955, he won four times, but not long after that, he fell into a slump after tinkering with his swing.

    Fellow professional Paul Runyan adjusted his grip and in 1959, he had his best year with five wins on Tour.

    There is one major trophy on Littler’s resume: the 1961 U.S. Open.

    But he had 17 top-10 finishes in the three majors held in the United States: seven at The Masters, five at the PGA Championship and five at the U.S. Open.

Lloyd Mangrum Was Always in the Majors Hunt

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    Lloyd Mangrum was one of the most consistent players to ever play the game. He had a smooth swing and he carried himself in a very relaxed manner, earning him the nickname “Mr. Icicle.”

    He won the 1946 U.S. Open, and was runner-up in four majors and third in five more. He lost in playoffs in the 1940 and 1950 U.S. Opens.

    He finished in the top 10 at the Masters 10 straight years, including in 1940 when he fired a tournament record 64.

    He led the PGA Tour money list in 1951 and was the Vardon Trophy winner for lowest scoring average in 1951 and 1953. Thirty-six of his 42 total wins were on the PGA Tour.

Cary Middlecoff Enjoyed Great Success in the 1950s

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    Dr. Cary Middlecoff was a practicing dentist who gave up that practice to become a professional golfer in the 1940s.

    It turned out to be a good career move as he won 40 PGA Tour events. He won the 1955 Masters and the U.S. Open in 1949 and 1956.

    During the decade of the 1950s, he won 28 Tour events, more than anyone else in that time.

    He also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average in 1956 and played on three Ryder teams in 1953, 1955 and 1959.

Ben Crenshaw Was One of the Best Putters Ever

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    Ben Crenshaw roared onto the PGA Tour in 1973, having just won the third of his three NCAA Championships at the University of Texas.

    He made quite a splash, becoming the second player in Tour history to win the first event of his career (Marty Fleckman in 1967 was the first).

    He was an impact player early on, finishing second in five majors before winning the 1984 Masters.

    Crenshaw is widely regarded as one of the best putters in golf history.

    He also won the 1995 and proved what a great putter he was by not three-putting once on Augusta National’s treacherous greens.

    He won 30 times, including 19 on the PGA Tour.

Bob Goalby Won 11 Times on the PGA Tour in 13 Years

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    Bob Goalby had a very nice Masters in 1968, finishing with a 66 and a tie with Argentinean Roberto DeVicenzo.

    But DeVicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard and Goalby was declared the winner. That was Goalby’s only major title in his career that ran from 1958 through 1971.

    He won 11 times on the PGA Tour and twice on the Champions Tour among his 14 professional wins.

    Strangely, Goalby never played in the Open Championship. He joined the Champions Tour (then the senior Tour) in 1979 and contributed key ideas to the formation and structure of that new Tour.

Tom Lehman Could Have Used Just a Wee Bit of Luck

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    Tom Lehman might be looked at as a hard-luck golfer based on the fact that he held the 54-hole lead in three consecutive U.S. Opens in 1995-97 without winning, but don’t tell him that.

    He considers himself blessed to have been in that position, and blames himself for not producing and not getting a U.S. Open title.

    He won 30 times, including five on the PGA Tour and six on the Champions Tour.

    He won the 1996 Open and is the only golfer to have earned Player of the Year honors on all three PGA Tours: Nationwide (now Web.com), PGA and Champions.

Tom Kite Withstood the Winds of Pebble Beach in 1982

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    Tom Kite was one of those quiet, unassuming players who played a simple but very effective game.

    He won 38 times worldwide, including 19 on the PGA Tour and 10 on the Champions Tour.

    His one major title was very memorable. He was the last man standing on a very windy Pebble Beach Golf Links in 1982 and captured the 1982 U.S. Open.

    Kite was first player to add a third wedge to his bag and one of the first to use a sports psychologist.

    He led the PGA Tour money list in 1981 and 1989 and was player of year in 1989.

    He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.

Johnny Miller Tore Up Oakmont Country Club in 1973

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    Johnny Miller’s career wasn’t as long as some of the other greats, but it certainly burned just as brightly.

    He won 32 events worldwide, including 25 on the PGA Tour.

    He won the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country and, in the process, set a record that stands today. In the final round, Miller shot a 63 that vaulted him up the leaderboard and to the title.

    He competed in the Jack Nicklaus/Tom Watson era, and was one of the best in the world in the mid-'70s.

    Miller has become the lead golf analyst for NBC in his post-playing days.

    He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012.

Curtis Strange Changed His Swing and Was Never the Same

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    Curtis Strange is perhaps best known as the last man to win back-to-back U.S. Opens.

    Those came in 1988 and 1989 when his game was at its peak. He decided to make some swing changes after the second title and his game was never quite the same.

    Seventeen of his 18 wins came on the PGA Tour.

    He spent over 200 weeks in the top 10 of the World Golf Rankings between 1986 and 1990. He had a fiery disposition and was often testy on the golf course.

    He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.

Hale Irwin Just Kept on Winning

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    Of the many things Hale Irwin has accomplished, his three U.S. Open titles are quite an accomplished. He’s one of only six golfers to have won the tournament that many times.

    In college at the University of Colorado, Irwin was a two-time All-Big 8 defensive back and also won the NCAA Division I golf championship.

    He has won 87 tournaments around the world, including 20 on the PGA Tour.

    When he went to the Champions Tour, he dominated, winning 45 times—tops in career victories there.

Raymond Floyd: Don't Mess with the Stare

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    There have been few more competitive players in the history of golf than Raymond Floyd. When he was in contention, which was often, he was not to be messed with.

    His focus was so intense that he gained the nickname “The Stare for that look.

    Sixty-six times he won around the world. Twenty-two of those came on the PGA Tour and 14 on the Champions Tour.

    He won the Masters once, the U.S. Open once and the PGA Championship twice.

Billy Casper Had One of Golf's Great U.S. Open Comebacks

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    Billy Casper has gotten a great deal of publicity over the last year concerning his come-from-behind U.S. Open victory over Arnold Palmer at the Olympic Club in 1966, but that win certainly doesn’t define his career.

    Another of golf’s great gentlemen, Casper won 68 worldwide wins, including 51 on the PGA Tour and nine on the Champions Tour.

    He claimed a Masters green jacket and another U.S. Open in addition to the one over Palmer.

Lee Trevino Was a Great Communicator on the Golf Course

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    The Merry Mex, as Lee Trevino was to become known as, was a player who liked and actually needed to talk during a round of golf. And if his playing partners weren’t interested, he supplied his own chatter.

    Trevino won 89 times around the world: 29 on the PGA Tour (he won two U.S. Opens, two Open Championships and two PGA Championships) and 29 on the Champions Tour.

    At an exhibition at Laurel Valley Golf Club near Pittsburgh, Trevino was warming up and a lady watching would say “Oooh, and Ahhh” every time he would hit a ball.

    After a bit, Trevino turned to her and said, “Gee lady, what do you expect from a U.S. Open champion? Ground balls?”

Phil Mickelson: Most Creative Golfer in Modern Game?

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    Widely acclaimed as the most creative player in the modern era of golf, Mickelson has 53 victories worldwide, including 40 on the PGA Tour.

    He won the Masters three times and the PGA Championship once.

    He’ll go down in history as one of the most prepared players for major champions, as well as the possessor of one of the great short games of all time.

The Squire, Gene Sarazen, Was a Great Champion

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    Gene Sarazen, diminutive in size, was not only a powerful player, but a powerful presence in the emerging years of professional golf. He was a seven-time major champion and his career was highlighted by three things.

    First, in the second year of the Masters, Sarazen holed his second shot on the par-five 15th hole for an albatross that vaulted him to the title.

    Secondly, in the 1973 Open Championship, Sarazen, then 71, aced Troon’s "Postage Stamp" eighth hole. The next day, he holed his bunker shot for a two at the same hole.

    Thirdly, he came up with a game-changing invention, the sand wedge, and he became one of the best in terms of using that club.

    He was the first to win a modern career Grand Slam (Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship, PGA Championship) when he won the 1935 PGA. He won 42 events around the world, including 39 in the United States.

Walter Hagen Was a Match-Play Champion

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    Walter Hagen won 11 major championships, including the PGA five times when it was contested at match play. 

    He was the first captain of the US Ryder Cup team and continued as its captain for the first six times the event was held, beginning in 1927 and ending in 1937. 

    Hagen won 45 times on the US professional tour and had 52 worldwide victories. However, he did something very important for the professional players.

    Over the course of his 15-year career, Walter Hagen became one of the best match-play competitors ever. He won the PGA Championship, which in those days was a match-play event, five times. He won two U.S. Opens and four Open Championships.

    Confidence was never a problem for Hagen. During matches, if his ball happened to find a greenside bunker, he’d have his caddie pull the stick before he played.

    He dressed stylishly, lived extravagantly, expected to be treated as a gentleman and took advantage of his celebrity to play 2,500 exhibition matches around the world.

Byron Nelson Had the Greatest Season of All Time in 1945

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    There is a reason why this man was nicknamed Lord Byron. Byron Nelson was a wonderful golfer, but he was even a greater man.

    His career as a professional golfer lasted only eight years, but they might have been the best eight years of any golfer.

    He won 52 professional tournaments in the United States, 64 worldwide. Five of those victories were majors.

    He had a magical season in 1945 when he won 11 straight tournaments and finished the season with 18 victories.

    How good of a ball-striker was he? Remember that mechanized swing gadget that was used to test golf balls?

    It was named Iron Byron because it was patterned after Byron Nelson’s swing.

Slammin' Sam Snead Had a Great Swing, Great Longevity

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    Even though he retired in 1987, Sam Snead still has the most wins in PGA Tour history—82.

    Of his 165 worldwide titles, he won 14 Champions Tour events in addition to the 82 on the PGA Tour.

    Seven of those were major victories, the last of which was the Open Championship in 1946.

    Slammin’ Sammy’s super-sweet swing has been emulated for decades.

    His longevity was amazing, as evidenced by his third-place finish in the 1974 PGA Championship...at age 62.

Ben Hogan's Career Was a Great Triumph over Adversity

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    Ben Hogan’s swing has been analyzed, marveled at and attempted to be reproduced more than perhaps any other swing in the history of golf.

    The Hawk won nine majors in just seven years and is one of only five players to have won the career Grand Slam.

    He had a chance to win the Grand Slam in 1953 when he won the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship.

    But he didn’t compete in the PGA Championship because he didn’t feel his legs could hold up in the 36-hole matches of that event. He had been critically injured in an automobile crash in 1949.

    Hogan won 68 tournaments worldwide, including 64 on the PGA Tour.

Bobby Jones Was the Greatest Amateur Ever

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    Bobby Jones holds a unique position on this list: he’s the only amateur on it. He won seven professional and six amateur majors.

    He is the first and only golfer to win the original Grand Slam: the U.S. and Open Championships and the U.S. and British Amateurs in the same year, 1930.

    He won the Open Championship three times and the U.S. Open four times.

    Jones is also well-known for having created the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

Arnold Palmer Won Fans and Golf Tournaments

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    Arnold Palmer has been credited with taking the game of professional golf, putting it on his broad shoulders and bringing it into the television age.

    His vibrant and engaging personality drew fans in, and his powerful, go-for-broke game won them over.

    He won 94 titles around the world, including 62 on the PGA Tour (including seven majors) and 10 on the Champions Tour.

Tom Watson Became King of the Links by Winning Five Opens

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    Tom Watson was one of golf’s great tacticians on the course and he used that ability to great advantage in winning eight major titles. He may have used that aspect best in winning five Open Championships, making him something of a links master.

    One of the neat stories about Watson is that he was a great admirer of Byron Nelson and eventually won Nelson’s tournament, The Byron Nelson, four times.

    Watson’s scorecard: 39 PGA Tour wins, 14 Champions Tour wins and 61 total wins around the world.

Tiger Woods Had a Chance to Be the Greatest Player Ever

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    Tiger Woods is without a doubt the absolute best golfer of his era.

    Whether he can put his career back on a track that will allow him to become the greatest of all time remains to be seen.

    He has won 14 majors, 74 PGA Tour events and 12 international events, a total of 100. Woods is the standard by which modern-day players and those in the future will be measured.

Jack Nicklaus Is the Greatest U.S. Golfer Ever

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    There was some doubt that Jack Nicklaus would maintain his “best that ever played” title because of the hard-charging Tiger Woods.

    But that charge was slowed down considerably by the events of Thanksgiving night 2009.

    Nicklaus won 18 major championships, two US Amateurs, three Players Championships, 73 PGA Tour events and 10 Champions Tour events (including eight senior majors)—115 worldwide wins in all.

    He was the best complete player of all time, evidenced by his winning the Masters in 1986 at age 46.